Founding member of NAS and regular saviour of maritime heritage Valerie Fenwick and NAS member, Southampton University PhD candidate and historic boat enthusiast Jack Pink recall a remarkable collection of international boats that were once part of our UK cultural heritage but have now been dispersed overseas.

In 2017 it was unexpectedly announced that the former Exeter Maritime Museum collection of 270 ethnographic and classic boats was to be broken up. This collection was unique, made up of boats from around the world, ranging from reed-built rafts to Pacific Outrigger-canoes. It would be auctioned on-line with only 24 hours allowed to collect the lots. Lacking intervention by the British Government or any UK-based maritime museum to save the collection for the Nation, the boats were sold as individual lots to private and public collectors. So began a challenging period where many of those who had worked with this collection for years, tried hard to ensure the survival of the individual boats.

The largest number were purchased for a museum in China, while seven Middle Eastern watercraft went to a museum in Oman. The largest group to remain in the UK were purchased by Valerie Fenwick. She presented a dugout and a coracle to the Maritime Archaeology Trust (MAT) to enhance its Mesolithic display in the Shipwreck Centre and Maritime Museum on the Isle of Wight. The other ten boats were housed in a 'pop-up' museum display near her home in Suffolk, with the intention of finding a permanent home in an established museum, but meanwhile providing an opportunity for them to be recorded and studied by Southampton University maritime archaeologists and students. This would ensure that the residual collection was fully documented. Sadly, more than 17 boats have been abandoned by their British and foreign purchasers and the fate of many others is uncertain. 

Over their two years in Suffolk the boats were attended by a who’s who of some of the best currently practicing Maritime Archaeologists in the UK. Between 2017 and the date of writing this collection was visited twice by Southampton University and the boats were used to train students in scale drawing and remote sensing techniques such as photogrammetry. The collection was also visited by members of the joint NAS-University of Southampton team, led by Abigail Parkes. The team is responsible for collating, digitising, and recording the paper archive of survey plans and other documents related to the collection. There has been no shortage of interest in these ten survivors, but behind the scenes two people; Dr. Lucy Blue and Valerie Fenwick, were hard at work to find them a permanent home.

Finally, on the 20th November 2019, the boats were carefully loaded on two huge lorries by staff from the National Maritime Museum in Gdansk to which they have been formally gifted. The Gdansk museum already has a fine and beautifully curated collection of ethnographic craft housed in a purpose-built extension adjacent to its iconic crane. The new additions will be used to create a special exhibition to mark the 60th anniversary of the NMM in April 2020. They have already arrived safely and are about to undergo a programme of conservation prior to their introduction to Gdansk’s display collection.

Whilst the Suffolk collection may have now left the UK, the project to deal with the considerable documentary archive related to the ISCA project is ongoing. Please contact the NAS for details of how you can get involved.

If you are interested in learning more about vernacular watercraft, like those from the ISCA collection, a good place to start is the classic and very readable Water Transport by James Hornell.

Want to learn more about the project? Email us on [email protected] 

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